Jazz is in the air
The 14th annual Roswell Jazz Festival has a new venue for its events and artists
By Christina Stock
The 14th annual Roswell Jazz Festival (RJF) takes place Oct. 16 to 20 at different venues throughout town with main events taking place at the Roswell Civic & Convention Center, 912 N. Main St.
New this year are seminars, an extended School of Jazz for children from the Roswell Independent School District, a free high energy Zumba class and swing dance lessons on Saturday afternoon, prior to the swing dance event in the evening.
Guest of honor 2019 is bassist Richard Simons.
Founded in 2006, the board of directors of the Roswell Jazz Festival say that its purpose is to provide the people of Southeast New Mexico and beyond with a festival that displays the artistry of jazz musicians from across the country. This includes celebrating its jazz roots, and to educate both young and old alike in the jazz traditions of America.
It is often asked how such a festival could be happening in Roswell. It all started with a disaster: Hurricane Katrina forced many evacuated residents of New Orleans to find new shelters, among them was the esteemed Pulitzer nominated composer and jazz pianist Roger Dickerson. During the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, Dickerson escaped from the roof of his flooded New Orleans home and joined the masses of evacuees in Houston’s Superdome, where he placed a phone call to his dear friend in Roswell, Frank Schlatter. Schlatter and Dickerson had been long-time friends, having served together in the 33rd U.S. Army European Band in Heidelberg, Germany.
Schlatter invited Dickerson to take refuge in his home in Roswell and he accepted. The spiritual and musical energy Dickerson brought with him to Roswell, along with the tireless efforts of Schlatter and the all-volunteer staff ultimately brought about Roswell’s first annual jazz festival, held in October 2006. Since then, the festival has been growing and throughout the world, Roswell is known among musicians as one of the places to come to celebrate the unique genre.
Michael Francis is RJF’s artistic director and — next to looking forward to meeting his friends and performing — is especially excited about the new location of the festival, which will be at the Roswell Civic & Convention Center.
“That’s the complete center of the changes,” Francis said. “The positive side is, a lot of people enjoy less running around to the different venues. Another good point about the Civic Center is about the labor. They don’t have to do near as much. It’s going to create a central focus place, and we’ve got the place during the day which allows us to have seminars. By getting that room locked in, we are expanding our School of Jazz, which is what we’ve always wanted to do with kids. I talked with the RISD into bussing in 1,000 to 1,200 kids on Thursday. That is not a public event, only for the school kids.”
Asked about the guest of honor — Simons, Francis said, “He is a delightful guy. He is Los Angeles’ top on-call bass player. He is brilliant with linguistics. He can quote and rhyme, he is a master of words.”
Asked about what he thought when he heard about being this year’s guest of honor, Simon said, “My first reaction to being named Roswell’s Guest of Honor was disbelief. Immediately, I asked Michael Francis if there might be a more deserving honoree — someone of a higher stature that hadn’t been honored previously. He rebuffed my protests, though I’m still trying to adjust to the idea of being singled out among so many distinguished artists, and in front of so many knowledgeable jazz fans.”
Simon came to his instrument of choice and genre fairly late in life. Musician Stéphane Grapelli influenced him to switch to jazz. “Though Grappelli evinced elegant command of the violin, and knew how to summon all the beautiful notes, it was the propulsive, dancing rhythm of his music that was a revelation to me,” Simon said. “The more jazz I listened to, the easier it was to identify the bass as the heart and soul of it all.
“Happily, the bass is enjoying an upsurge in popularity among young people. I have a few bass students that started with me while they were in middle school, and another one that’s now a junior in high school,” Simon said.
It seems that there is a shortage of bass everywhere, no matter the genre. Simon has an explanation for it. “Maybe the shortage of bass players here and that is partly because of the supportive role the instrument plays,” he said. “Unlike a saxophone or a flute, it’s not often a melody instrument, but an ‘accompaniment’ one. Playing the bass — whether the student plays in a school orchestra or a garage band — usually means playing ‘bass lines,’ rather than melodies, and not every personality wants to play, if you’ll pardon the expression, second fiddle.”
Jazz is one of the most unique genres in music, as it evolves constantly and finds fans with every generation. “As Duke Ellington famously said, jazz is ‘America’s classical music,’” Simon said. “Jazz has permeated the worlds of cinema, dance, graphic arts and literature. It continues to evolve, but with so many resources available today, you can check out everything from the earliest Louis Armstrong recordings to the current, young phenoms that proliferate on YouTube.
“The best way to experience jazz is still in a live performance. And with so many great players coming to Roswell, you have a golden opportunity to see what all the excitement is about,” Simon said.
Asked what he plans to perform, he said, “I honestly have no idea what I’m going to perform at Roswell. I like to repeat what someone has said about this art form: ‘Jazz musicians never play the same thing once.’”
For the first time attending the RJF is Barron Ryan. “He is a soloist,” Francis said. “He is not a group player that can be thrown in with other musicians, so his two sets on Friday and Saturday are solos and his Anderson (Museum of Contemporary Art) set is solo. He is magnificent. When I saw him — a friend of mine sent me a video of him — it blew me away. I couldn’t believe this young man, he’s going to be great.”
Ryan’s love for music has always been divided. He grew up in a house filled with the sounds of artists ranging from Mozart to Michael Jackson. So when it comes to his own performing, he’s not content drawing on just one influence. He combines them all into a musical adventure that’s vintage yet fresh, historical yet hip, classic yet cool.
In a phone interview, Ryan talked about his style. “I am a little different from all the others,” he said. “I come to the Roswell Jazz Festival with a little different background than most of the performers in that — if I have to be categorized — as a classical concert pianist, not so much as jazz pianist. I am a son of musicians, so I took classical piano lessons and studied classical piano in college with a performance degree. I wanted to learn more about these other styles, these other pianists, so after I graduated, I decided that I would embark on an adventure into other kinds of music besides that which I had studied, which was the classical repertoire of Beethoven and Chopin and so forth.
“Much that I am going to play in Roswell came out of that desire. I decided to learn from my favorite pianists by transcribing their music after listening to their recordings very fastidiously, so that I could write down each note and then replay them. That was my way of learning how they constructed their music. It was a way to improve my own ability to listen and play what I hear because your ability to identify notes has to get better to do that process. It was my way of paying tribute to some of the great artists of any time period and reinvigorate music that they played once on a recording we heard and never played again.”
Ryan is also a songwriter. “I had the opportunity to prepare a recital at a university here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I live and needed a significant amount of new music to put away. My fans here had heard all the music I played in the last years. I just decided to write something for myself. I planned to do that, I just had no time until now.
“I probably will play the sonata (at RJF), it has four different movements or sections, officially they are movements, but there are a lot of people who are not familiar with it. I will probably play one of them. I probably will play more recent American influence because jazz has been used in a lot of classical music, but I haven’t heard of pop used, a lot of soul or blues and so — I will use some of those influences in the sonata,” Ryan said.
Asked what he enjoyed most about jazz, Ryan said, “It’s fun to listen to. Jazz is simultaneously approachable and it is very deep, so the further you look into it the more you learn about it. Jazz is such a unique way of communicating, of expressing yourself and then communicating with people you are collaborating with, the musicians. It’s just good music and fun and it can put out a whole array of emotions and beyond that it is an important part of our culture and musical history. It formed so much of what came afterward: pop music and hip-hop has been really shaped by jazz. We wouldn’t have music in this form if we wouldn’t have had jazz before that.”
Another musician who will perform in Roswell for the first time is legendary drummer Butch Miles. He has played with the Count Basie Orchestra, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra to name a few.
Every musician has a beginning, even the legendary ones. Asked about his upbringing and start in the genre, Miles said, “To make a long story short, I was interested in drums and got into a rock ‘n’ roll band in high school. So I took two or three lessons. My mother was totally behind me, bless her heart. She told me she would support me in whatever I wanted to do with music.
“I used to live in Albuquerque many years ago and was there quite a while, but I never got down to Roswell,” Miles said. “I always wanted to come by. I also had a deep and abiding love and fascination with space travel, space aliens, science fiction and science fantasy and Roswell seems to be the center of most of it.
“I am really looking forward to coming and performing with some other great musicians. It’s going to be a fantastic time. If I get the chance, I want to get out and see a little bit of the city,“ Miles said.
Asked about what he was planning to perform, Miles said, “I have no idea. We’ll all get together, different musicians performing at the various times. We will get together just before the performance and talk it over about what tune we are going to play; get an idea of how we are going to play it, then we go on stage and do it. It’s called performing without a net. They are great musicians. We’re going to have a swinging time – it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Asked if he has any advice for young children, Miles said that — while it may not be as interesting — learning to read music is most important for a real career, next to having talent.
“If you want to play music for fun, get together on Saturdays for the rest of your life, that’s great,” Miles said. “However, there are others that are blessed or cursed — it depends how you look at it — with having to play music. It’s something we have to do, it’s not a choice. I am very happy and at the same time wonder about it that I was chosen to play music. I never really question it, it’s really depending what you want to do with it and what you want to do with your life. You either have to throw everything in it or just do it as a hobby. There is no in between.
“I am looking forward to being in Roswell for the first time and hope to see some old friends I have performed with that weekend and am looking forward to making some new friends with the musicians and the fans. That’s what got me excited,” Miles said.
Another outstanding artist, among all the musicians, is Ted Rosenthal, one of the leading jazz pianists of his generation. He said in a phone interview that he started out as a child in classical music, but early on his love turned to jazz. Rosenthal teaches jazz at Manhattan’s renowned Juilliard School of Music since 2006.
Asked how he heard of RJF, Rosenthal said, “I’ve heard about it from some of my good friends and musical colleagues for example, Chuck Redd. And then this past year, I played at the festival in Midland, Odessa, Texas. Many of the people who attend the festival, I think also attend the Roswell festival and musicians play at both of those festivals. I think jazz lovers find each other and appreciate the musicians, which is very nice. It is like a family.”
Rosenthal has performed worldwide as a soloist, leader and sideman with jazz greats including Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Phil Woods, Bob Brookmeyer, Jon Faddis, James Moody and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. He won first prize at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in 1988. He has released 13 albums as a leader. “Out of This World” (2011) reached No. 1 on jazz radio charts nationwide. Rosenthal has been pianist for many top jazz vocalists including Helen Merrill, Ann Hampton Callaway and Barbara Cook. He has had solo and featured appearances with the Detroit Symphony, the Rochester Philharmonic, Grand Rapids Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony and the Boston Pops.
A recipient of three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, he regularly performs and records his compositions, which include jazz tunes and large-scale works. He premiered his second jazz piano concerto, Jazz Fantasy, with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in 2011. Rosenthal has also composed music for dance, including “Uptown,” for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Asked what his plans for RJF is, Rosenthal said, “I am really looking forward to performing with some people that I know well and love them and their playing, such as Houston Person (tenor saxophone) and Ken Peplowski (clarinet and tenor saxophone) and I mentioned Chuck Redd (vibes and drums), I enjoy the festivals where they put us together in different combinations.
“Each one is sometimes the temporary leader and we play the music that they choose. That’s always fun and I look forward to a variety of musicians and experiences. I’ll enjoy all of them.
“I understand that there is also a special piano event on Sunday,” Rosenthal said. “I am looking forward to hearing the other pianists and participating in that as well. It will be a special moment in the weekend.
“I am really looking forward to seeing it for the first time and maybe seeing even a UFO, if I am lucky,” Rosenthal said.
Asked what Francis is personally looking forward to, he said that this year will bring in a family reunion. “My daughter, Lisa Dunlop, and a friend of hers and my ex-wife and a friend of hers are all coming from California, they are going to conduct a high-end Zumba class (free of charge). She’s the queen of Zumba of Palm Springs. We’re going to time it right after the Latin jazz presentation on Saturday,” Francis said. He is also excited about the swing dance lessons by Susan Francis and Joe Rodriguez that will happen before the dance on Saturday evening.
“Before moving to California, Susan Francis lived in El Paso, Texas where she operated dance studios Dance Dimensions and Body Business, and the performing company known as the Susan Francis Dancers. During this time, Susan produced and choreographed Broadway on the Border productions, “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Eubie,” featuring Mike Francis on piano; and “Jesus Christ Superstar” as well as the all-dance version of “Dracula.” In California, she works as chief executive officer of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation.
Rodriguez is an educator at Transmountain Early College High School in El Paso, Texas.
To better engage his students in the heavy focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies, Rodriguez integrated music and dance into the classroom environment and it became an instant hit.
The KRU (Kids & Rythm United) program provides mentorship for students by instilling the values of teamwork and commitment in conjunction with an appreciation for the performing arts, music, audio/visual technology and physical activity. Resulting in a winning combination of authentic educational experience involving problem-solving applications, work experience and the pride that comes from community involvement.
New this year are seminars about the jazz genre. Jim Shearer will be hosting two of those seminars on Friday. One session is about active jazz listening. “I will talk about how we structure jazz and how different players use the same material in different ways,” Shearer said on the phone. The other seminar will be about legendary musician Louis Armstrong.
Shearer teaches tuba, euphonium, music history and music appreciation to graduate, undergraduate and honors students at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. An active classical soloist, Shearer has appeared throughout the United States as a guest artist with various wind ensembles and orchestras and in solo recital performances in The Great American Tuba Show.
Also attending this year, next to the ones already mentioned: Harry Allen (tenor saxophone), John Allred (trombone), Dan Barrett (trombone), Pepe Carmona (guitar/vocalist), Rich Chorné (guitar), Scott Edmunds (clarinet), Christine Fawson (trumpet), Danny Garcia (clarinet, saxophone), Charles Gordon (trumpet), David Jellema (cornet), Rebecca Kilgore (vocalist), Glenn Kostur (saxophone), Juan Lechuga (bass/vocalist), Kathy Lyon, (vocalist), Ricky Malichi (drums), Ceci Noel (vocalist), Hillary Smith (vocalist), Randy Sandke (trumpet), Erik Unsworth (bass), Allan Vaché (clarinet/saxophone), Johnny Varro (piano), Tom Wakeling (bass) and Curt Warren (guitar).
For more information and the entire event schedule, visit roswelljazz.org.